Like any roller derby girl, I like talking about my sport. I like seeing the reactions when I tell people what I do when I’m not working the front desk at a doctor’s office. Some people get excited and reminisce about when they used to watch roller derby on television. Some look at me blankly and ask, “What the heck is roller derby?”
I can only imagine my fellow derby girls, when talking about roller derby, get many of the same reactions and questions I do: what is roller derby, how is it played, are the hits real? Well, dear reader, you’re in luck. Today we’re going to go over the Roller Derby FAQ.
- What is roller derby?
A very good question! Simply put, roller derby is when a group of hot ladies get together, put on roller skates, and hit each other without mercy while skating in a giant oval. More accurately, roller derby has a very long history and has undergone at least three revisions before becoming the legitimate, full contact sport of today.
The first recorded use of the term “roller derby” goes back to the 1920s, but the concept had been in existence as early as 1885. During that time, roller derby was an endurance race. Like those 24 hour dance-a-thons, people would put on their roller skates and go until they were the last person standing – or, rather skating. It didn’t involve hitting or a point system. All you had to do was outlast the competition.
Over the next several decades, roller derby came and went in varying degrees. It was broadcast over the radio in 1939, was initially televised in 1945, and saw the first formation of organized leagues during the 1950s and 1960s. During this time period, it shifted from being an endurance sport to something more of an exhibition show complete with staged stunts. While such stunts as chucking opponents across the rink or laying a huge hit on a skater made for good television, a lot of the participants were unhappy with the fact that roller derby had gone from being an authentic sport to simple entertainment.
It wasn’t until 2000 that roller derby started shaping into the sport we know and love today. Rules were established, a point system was put into place, and roller derby was reborn into a sport that is both physical and strategic at the same time – and it was for women. It is one of the quickest growing sports in the United States with over 170 fully registered Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) leagues and nearly 100 apprentice leagues. Roller derby has become an international phenomenon with leagues spanning across the globe; in 2011, it had its first World Cup Championship. Even though its roots still, to this day, remain very firmly tied with the new wave feminist movement, roller derby has found an appeal with men as well; the Men’s Roller Derby Association (MRDA) follows all the same rules as WFTDA but is geared toward our brothers on skates. Roller derby is a sport that everyone can play and enjoy.
- How do you play roller derby?
Again, this is a question that is both easy and difficult to answer. The very basic answer is that you put on roller skates and hit girls on the other team. However, there’s a lot more to roller derby than that. You have to know when to hit and when to simply get in their way, when to speed up and when to slow down, when to go on the offensive and when to play defensive. There is a LOT more strategy on that track than might appear while watching it. Roller girls specialize in organized chaos – as well as the unorganized variety.
Usually the best way to understand derby is to watch it by coming to bouts, but let’s see if we can break it down a bit here. Roller derby is played with five women from each team on the track at a time. Four of those skaters are blockers. Their job is to get their jammer through while keeping the other team’s jammer back. The fifth player is the jammer, the one who scores points.
The jammer’s job is to break through the pack (the combined blockers from each team) before the other jammer. This will give her lead status and a HUGE advantage in that she now controls how long the jam is played. Jams can run up to two full minutes, but typically they last anywhere between 45 seconds to a minute. No points are scored on this initial pass though; all the jammers are trying to do is get that lead status. Once lead has been established, the next time a jammer enters the pack she gets one point for every blocker on the opposing team that she passes. She continues scoring points until the two minutes is up or until she calls it off.
Jammers are incredibly important. Without them, your team doesn’t score points. The jammer is also responsible for knowing when to stop the jam: if the other jammer is right behind her when approaching the pack, if the other jammer is faster, if she’s getting exhausted. A jammer not only requires stamina but needs to have the ability to think quickly on her skates and react immediately when she sees an opening in the pack.
The blockers are equally important because they are responsible for setting the pace of the pack. They need to be able to protect their jammer while simultaneously holding the other jammer back. They need to know when to speed the pack up and when to slow it down, be able to hit and take hits, communicate effectively… Essentially, it is a helluva lot of multitasking and teamwork all at once. Blockers need to be constantly aware of their surroundings at all times.
Needless to say, jammers and blockers cannot do what they do best without each other. You can be the greatest jammer in the world, but if your blockers aren’t able to hold back the competition and protect you from the other blockers, then it doesn’t matter. The same is true in reverse; you can have the most solid lineup of blockers out there, but if your jammer isn’t able to fight her way through the other team then it’s all for nothing. Roller derby is, first and foremost, a collaborative team effort on the track. Going to the penalty box may make for great entertainment, but it literally can decide whether your team wins by one hundred or loses by two hundred.
- Is it real?
Umm… what do you think?
If you look closely, it looks like a hamburger….
Okay, in all seriousness I get asked this question a LOT. People remember watching all the staged hits and falls from when roller derby was televised and think that’s what we do now. It’s not. Trust me, I have more photos to prove it. Every time you see a girl get hit right off her skates, every time she falls and doesn’t get back up – it’s real. Roller derby isn’t called a “full contact extreme sport” for nothing. The safety gear we wear isn’t because we think it looks sexy; that’s what the fishnet tights are for. It is to keep us as safe as possible when we do get taken down.
Roller derby is a real, legitimate sport. It requires dedication, hard work, cross training, and, most importantly, the drive to succeed.
- How does a nice girl like you end up playing a sport like roller derby?
First of all, whoever told you I was a nice girl is a liar. Second, you get into roller derby like you do any other sport: you fall in love. The thing about roller derby is that there are SO many different elements to fall in love with.
For some people, it’s the camaraderie. It’s getting out of the house to meet new and exciting people, to be part of a group where no one judges you. Roller derby is accepting of EVERYONE. It doesn’t matter if you’re a college student, a mom, a teacher, a lawyer, brazen, shy, overweight, figuring yourself out, or still figuring yourself out several years after you were supposed to have figured yourself out. The saying “come as you are” could not be truer when it comes to roller derby.
For others, it’s the exercise. Roller derby is an extreme sport that requires players to pass a minimum level of skills in order to play. This means being able to skate 25 laps in 5 minutes, being able to remain in “derby stance” – skating in a deep squat position – at all times, and being able to fall and get back up in 3 seconds or less. It is a lot of cardio, a lot of weight training, and an allover body workout. In general, roller skating burns an average of 11 calories per minute. Our practices are typically two hours long and are much more than just skating in an oval at a casual pace.
Then, for the competitive types, there is the thrill of bouting. It’s the rush of adrenaline when you step onto the track for the first time, the exhilaration at putting the skills you’ve been honing to work, the jubilation of victory. It’s starting a friendly contest between teammates to see who can be faster, who can hit harder. There is also the self-competition aspect, of seeing how far you can push yourself. Roller derby can and will show you that you are far more capable than you might think you are.
- It sounds fun, but I’m not a masochist like you. Pain and I do not mix.
Technically, this isn’t a question but it’s something I hear almost as frequently as the one about whether it’s real or not. To address this, I’m going to be very honest and reveal a dirty little secret: pain and I don’t mix either.
Seriously, you will not find a bigger wuss than me. I very nearly passed out getting the second piercings in my ears; I was twenty-two at the time. But, as I said above, roller derby will prove that you can take more than you ever thought you could. The nasty bruises become a game where we compare the size, color, and whose hip/skate caused it. Severe injuries, such as broken bones, really don’t happen that often and usually only occur under freak conditions. We wear protective gear and train our skaters how to fall appropriately so as to minimize this from happening.
But, hey. If you’re still skittish about the full contact aspect of roller derby – no worries! Teams are comprised of MUCH more than just the skaters. We absolutely could not do what we do without the help of referees and non-skating officials (NSO’s). They are the people who learn the game and make the bouts happen – and they are ALL volunteers who do it because they love the sport. Without the refs to keep us in line and playing safely or the NSO’s to literally do everything from tracking penalties to score keeping to keeping time during jams, we could not do this. Their jobs are just as important as any jammer or blocker on the track.
So, if you’re interested in learning more about roller derby, whether to be a future skater or join our team of refs and NSO’s or just as a curious spectator, go online and check out your local roller derby team. We would love to talk derby to you!